How a constitution can heal the wounds of history

I salute the leadership and people of Kenya on the promulgation of their landmark Constitution. In a peaceful and calm referendum vote that defied skeptics, Kenyans have successfully begun an important journey of reshaping their country.

I salute the leadership and people of Kenya on the promulgation of their landmark Constitution. In a peaceful and calm referendum vote that defied skeptics, Kenyans have successfully begun an important journey of reshaping their country.

We in Rwanda never wavered in our faith regarding the ability of our Kenyan brothers and sisters to stand up to their challenges. In a country blessed with enormous talent, history, culture and a dynamic private sector – it was only a matter of time before Kenyans found the path to a common future.

Even when foreign effort was underway following the post-election violence in 2008, it was always clear that these external contributions could only build on robust home-grown and agreed solutions, and ultimately long-term stability would be steered by Kenyans themselves.

This spirit of self-determination should prevail and guide us all in the East African Community as we pursue meaningful integration that will uplift the lives of our people. As I understand it, adopting a new constitution is the beginning of a long process of nation building.

Implementation for the desired results is the harder part, but I have no doubt that Kenyans are equally prepared for this task. There will be numerous new laws to be enacted, new institutions to be created and existing institutions will be making the transition to a new political dispensation.

This requires leadership, courage, wisdom and patience. It also calls for commitment and collaboration from all branches of government. Rwanda identifies closely with this ongoing process in our EAC partner state. Just as we have lived through the consequences of bad governance, we now appreciate the benefits that come from devising a new relevant political system and staying the course of our choice.

Emergency  and transition

Similar to the situation in Kenya, Rwanda went through an emergency and transition period, followed by extensive national consultations on a new constitution. This brought our country to a new era of reconciliation where consensual and inclusive politics are becoming a reality, doing away with extremist and divisive politics of the past.

In addition to providing for the independence of the judiciary, our constitution lays down the principle of power-sharing through checks and balances within as well as between the Executive and the Legislature, such that the President and the Speaker of Parliament may not be from the same political party, and the President’s party may occupy only half the seats in Cabinet.

The values enshrined in our constitution permeate beyond politics to every aspect of national life. It is in this way that, in the face of overwhelming odds, the massive participation of ordinary Rwandans has directly resulted in our current socio-economic development.

Rwandans learned early on that the decisions we took to resolve our challenges would not always be popular, especially at the beginning. Experience taught us that when a country starts to come apart, friends become scarce – those who raised their voices loudest in criticism, would be the first to flee to safety at the earliest signs of instability.

We have come to understand that part of the struggle is to persistently uphold our agreed values against misguided criticism. For example, a quick scan of recent media coverage on Rwanda reveals the kind of distortion propagated by observers who are quick to label government actions to protect against sectarian politics and incendiary media, as stereotypical African dictator tactics.

Some commentators even go as far as claiming that these safeguards are in themselves the cause of ethnic sectarianism and instability. They get it wrong by omitting crucial historical context hence perpetuating prejudices against initiatives that do not fit with their own frames of reference.

Similarly, the step Kenya takes on Friday may not meet the approval of all. Some provisions of the constitution have already been criticised. But experience is increasingly showing us that as long as the process is owned by the people it is meant to serve, it will be the basis for a stable, united and prosperous nation – and this is what matters most.

For Rwanda, Kenya and other countries on our continent, the judges and beneficiaries of progress are always the very people who have invested in conceiving and supporting an appropriate political system that reflects their history, political culture as well as their lived experiences. As partners in the East African Community, we shall walk this journey together.

The author is the President of Rwanda

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